I want to start this blog with a scenario, albeit from an extreme example of a 16 year old school student who was a very promising basketball player. She came from a very difficult background; she lived with one parent who struggled to provide for her and her sister, and she had picked up a juvenile record for assault along the way.
I had managed to secure her an assisted place on a five day residential sports camp, but when the appointed arrival time came and went, there was no sign of her. On phoning her she said she had decided she couldn't be bothered to come. What would your reaction be as a coach in this situation? I will come back to how this panned out at the end of this blog.
Why background is so important
Having coached hockey players from four year olds just starting out through to some of the best players ever to have played the game, it is very clear that some of the most talented players to have taken up a stick are all completely different people from very different walks of life.
While they have a lot in common in terms of their drive, mental toughness and constant desire to improve, they have come from all backgrounds: from comfortably middle class students literally studying rocket science through to players brought up by a relative on next to no income, who turn up again and again to training in order to avoid having to go home and so they can find a way out of their immediate situation, escaping through their excellence in sport.
What's going on away from the training field?
My contention is that as coaches, we are often not aware of players' circumstances or unwilling to accommodate any player outside those parameters we are used to dealing with. We have, quite rightly, clear expectations of all players and as a result when a player does not live up to these we are often very quick to draw conclusions as to their suitability to play at a higher level.
An example of this is a player I worked with in the Scotland Under 16 set up. She was playing in an inter district competition at which I was selecting and didn't stand out particularly. However, her coach (someone I trusted implicitly) insisted I take her into my training squad, something he had never done before and so I was willing to take a chance based on his opinion. He explained that she was quite raw, but was a natural goalscorer - a rare commodity indeed in all invasion games.
She came into the squad and worked extremely hard; she was a very different kind of personality in relation to the majority of the squad and ended up as the highest scorer the Scotland U16s had between 2001 and 2010 (I suspect she probably outscored those before and after that time as well, but I was only involved in the programme during that time, so can't comment further). She certainly outscored two forwards who have gone on to appear for the Scotland senior women's team and one now capped for GB. However, she was not included in any national squad after her year at U16 level.
One of the main issues was her perceived commitment during that summer and immediately afterwards.
She was included in her district's junior performance set up, but when I spoke to the coach of that group that summer he expressed his disappointment in her commitment and attitude. This was based, quite understandably, on her failure to attend four sessions in a row and to communicate with the coach as to why this was.
On speaking to her myself my understanding was that she had stayed home as her mum had decided to go out to the pub every week on that night and so she had been left alone to babysit her younger sister. The coach did not see it as their role to address this and as my post was voluntary and some distance from her I was unable to support her. The district coach who recommended her in the first place did his best to help her, but as she perceived that the performance coach and therefore national setup did not value her, she slowly drifted away from the game.
Is it worth going the extra mile with players?
The question is, if we had been able or willing to support her and her family in a practical way, would she have been scoring goals for the senior team this summer in Glasgow? While we will never know, should we have worked harder to make it a possibility? As coaches, are we willing to go beyond what we see on the surface of an issue to understand the root cause? Is it worth it?
My argument is always 'yes' to all these questions wherever it is humanly possible. We have a responsibility as coaches first and foremost to the individual. Without going into the higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, if we can ensure the athlete is confident, at peace and happy in themselves everything else we want to instil in them and train them for will follow naturally. Again, there is not space here to discuss specific interventions, but if the district performance coach had dug a little deeper in the case of the player above, things could have turned out very differently. While not all coaches are comfortable in dealing with this kind of situation there will nearly always be someone in that player's life who can help, even if it means going back to their school as I have done in a number of cases.
Why it pays to dig beneath the surface...
Another good example is one of the students from a school I taught at, who was selected for a district team. Her coach approached me after a few weeks and said she didn't really think the player was interested as she never said anything and didn't interact much with the other players, although she did all she was asked in training.
When I spoke to the player she explained that actually she was terrified of saying anything in case the other players and coach thought she was a 'ned' or 'really stupid'.
Actually the fact that she had played her way into that team, given that no one else in her school even turned up to the trial, should have been evidence of her determination. She was one of only 3 players in the squad of around 25 that did not play for one of 5 local private schools.
Again, as coaches, knowing the background of a player like this and what they have gone through to get where they are, should give real insight into how to react to challenges we face in coaching them. I would also strongly advocate listening to trusted voices who know the player well. They are likely to give the best advice in how to move the player on to where we want them to be.
Treating players as individuals...
And what happened to our basketball player above? We didn't take no for an answer as we knew her pretty well and she had been looking forward to the camp for weeks. In fact we drove to her flat to speak to her. There she admitted that actually she was simply ashamed of turning up to a camp full of people she didn't know with the clothes and especially trainers she owned. We bought her new kit and she described that camp as the best week of her life.
During the five days she also tried her hand at rugby and turned out to be simply outstanding. She was taken on by a national league club, but was too young to play in the league at the time. As a result she also drifted away and one of the questions that still haunts me today is: what should I have done to her support her? Directly I wouldn't have been able to do anything, but I certainly had the resources and contacts to help more than I did.
My hope is as a coach in the future I won't make the same mistakes, and that is why I would also urge any other coach to first and foremost support the person and their development as an individual. After that the technical and tactical improvements we want to make will take care of themselves.